A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

2. Chapter Two


1.         Karmic Law Denied


Finally, let us consider Nagarjuna’s comments on the moral principle of ‘karma’ (as we commonly call it). He denies karmic law – for him, “necessary connections between good deeds and rewards, and bad deeds and punishments” are, as Cheng describes[1], “not objective laws in nature and society, but subjective projections of the mind”. This is of course not an argument, but a statement, so his reasoning cannot be evaluated. The statement is notable, considering the context of Indian and Buddhist belief. And again, Nagarjuna makes this statement, not out of a desire to oppose normative Buddhism, but in an attempt to be consistent with his own overall philosophical programme of consciousness beyond reason, the ‘middle way’.


2.         Empirical Observations


I will take this opportunity to make a few comments of my own regarding karma. The claim that there is moral order in the world is partly, but only partly, based on empirical grounds. Without prejudice as to what constitutes morality, we can agree that certain actions have certain consequences, and that some of those actions and consequences happen to be morally orderly by our standards. The ‘actions’ referred to are actions of a person; the so-called ‘consequences’ referred to are things happening to that person beyond his control.

It so happens that sometimes a person who has acted in a way he (or an observer) considers ‘good’ (e.g. being kind to others, or whatever) is soon after or much later a recipient of something he (or the observer) considers ‘positive’ for himself (e.g. health or children or wealth, whatever). Similarly, a ‘bad’ action may be followed by ‘negative’ events. In some of those cases, a causal relation may be empirically established between the ‘action’ and ‘consequence’, without appeal to a moral principle. For instance, the man works hard and prospers. Such cases can be considered evidence in favor of a karmic law. In other cases, however, the causal relation is merely assumed to occur subterraneously, because it is not empirically evident that such ‘action’ produces such ‘consequence’. For instance, the man gives charity and prospers. It would be begging the question to use cases of the latter sort as evidence in favor of karmic law, since it is only by assuming karmic law that we interpret the events as causally connected.

Furthermore, it so happens that sometimes, despite good actions, no positive consequences are forthcoming or only negative ones follow; or despite bad actions, no negative consequences are forthcoming or only positive ones follow. The saint suffers and the evil man enjoys. These cases are all empirical evidence against karmic law, granting the value judgments involved, since we are not assuming karmic law to establish the causal relations between such actions and so-called consequences (be they happenstance or evidently produced by the actions). Of course, one might mitigate this conclusion somewhat, by stating that one has to know all the life of a person because no one only suffers and no one only enjoys, and that anyway it is difficult to estimate the merits of a good deed or demerits of a bad deed.


3.         Inductive Conclusions


Thus, whereas karmic law might be viewed as a generalization from the cases where actions are empirically causally connected to consequences, it cannot be inferred from the cases where such connection is not established without presuming karmic law, and it is belied by the cases where the order of things predicted by karmic law is not matched in experience. In order to nevertheless justify karmic law, religions may introduce the concept of rebirth, on earth as a human or other creature, or elsewhere, in heaven or in hell, suggesting that if the accounts do not balance within the current lifetime, they do in the long run balance. But again, since we have no empirical evidence of such transmigration and the process is anyway very vaguely described, such argument begs the question, making the assumption of karmic law superficially more palatable, but not providing clear concept or inductive proof of it.

Some might hang on to karmic law all the same, by arguing that what we have been calling good or bad, or positive or negative, was wrongly so called. These postulate that a set of moral standards, of virtue and value, might be found, that exactly coincide with empirically evident causal processes, or at least which are not belied by such processes. Good luck.

But what bothers me most about the assumption of karmic law is this: it logically implies that whoever suffers must have previously done evil. For instance, the millions of Jews (including children) murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. This seems to me an unforgivable injustice – it is an assertion that there are no innocent victims of crime and that criminals are effectively agents of justice! Thus, in the name of morality, in the name of moral order – merely to satisfy a ‘rationalist’ impulse to uphold a ‘law of karma’ – justice is turned upside-down and made to accuse the innocent and exonerate the guilty. Clearly, the idea of karmic law is inherently illogical. We have to conclude that the world functions differently than such a principle implies.

We seem to have reached, with regard to karma, the same negative conclusion as Nagarjuna, though perhaps through a different argument. If there is no karmic law, is there then no need for liberation, no utility to virtue and meditation? It does not follow. Even if souls come and go, like bubbles in water, it may be good for them to realize their true nature while they are around. ‘Virtue is its own reward’ and the benefits of meditation are obvious to anyone engaged in it.


Drawn from Buddhist Illogic 2002), Chapter 9.



[1]           See p. 88. Cheng there refers to MT XVII:1-33, XXIV:18, and Hui-cheng-lun, 72, as well as to TGT II.

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive


There are currently no blog comments.